Posts Tagged ‘College-educated waiters’

What is a college degree worth, really?

November 9, 2010

Everybody from Barack Obama to Bill Gates is pushing the idea that sending more people to college is the key to our nation’s economic future.  I would never deny that education is a good thing.  I would agree, up to a point, that education is a good economic investment, but that requires a certain amount of qualification.

The latest figures show that the United States has 317,000 college-educated waiters and waitresses, 80,000 college-educated bartenders, and 18,000 college-educated parking lot attendants.  There are 8,000 waiters and waitresses and 5,000 janitors and cleaners with doctoral or equivalent degrees.  In all, 17 million American college graduates are working in jobs that don’t require education beyond high school.   When I go out with philosophy professor friends, we sometimes run into their former students waiting on tables or tending bar.

Now these college graduates may not be working as waitresses, bartenders, parking lot attendants or janitors all their lives.  It’s traditional in the United States for successful people to begin their careers in lowly jobs.  It’s still true that, on average, college graduates are better off than those with lesser schooling.  And of course education – whether classroom instruction or independent study – has a value that can’t be measured in money.

On the other hand it costs a lot more than it once did to get a college education.  The average graduate comes out of college owing tens of thousands of dollars in college loans; one in five of those loans are in default.  And among older workers, college graduates have a harder time than others breaking out of long-term unemployment.  The payoff from a college education doesn’t always equal the cost.

We don’t have a problem with structural unemployment, people unemployed because they don’t quality for the jobs available.  Rather we have the reverse, people unemployed because they are overqualified for the jobs available. [Added 11/13/10.  We hear a lot about structural unemployment, people unemployed because they underqualified.  But not only are there large numbers of people who are overqualified for the jobs they hold, there are those who are rejected for jobs because they are overqualified.]

The question is to what extent getting a college degree adds value to the economy, and to what extent it merely helps the individual in an economic arms race.  A college degree may give you a better chance than a high school graduate or dropout of getting a good job, but college degrees for everyone won’t prevent those jobs from going away.

And – just saying – the history of other countries shows that when revolutionary or fascist movements arise, they are generally led by unemployed college graduates.